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"Friend's pacing was beautifully judged, always enhancing the key dramatic moments. His intimate knowledge of the work ensured remarkable ensemble between singers and orchestra."

The Australian on Tristan und Isolde


Lionel Friend at the piano - photo by Julie Kim
Photo © Julie Kim

A familiar figure in both the opera house and on the concert platform, since 2000 Lionel Friend has made debuts with Opera Australia (Arabella), Los Angeles Opera (Grendel), New Zealand Opera (Le nozze di Figaro) and conducted Dallapiccola and Mozart at Frankfurt Opera. Acclaimed in Budapest for a concert of contemporary Hungarian orchestral works, in Norway for a programme of Berg, Webern and Zemlinsky and in Aachen for Dvorák and Sibelius as well as for a concert performance of Der fliegende Holländer with London Lyric Opera and the Royal Philharmonic at London’s Barbican Hall, his current orchestral repertoire ranges from Haydn and Weber to Messiaen, Lutoslawski and Britten.

Lionel Friend was educated at the Royal College of Music in London, where he won all the major conducting prizes. Following private study with Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and Sir Colin Davis, he made his début conducting La traviata with Welsh National Opera and was also conductor and chorus-master for Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Glyndebourne Touring Opera, specialising in Mozart. For three years he was Kapellmeister at the Staatstheater in Kassel, Germany.

On returning to the UK, for thirteen years Lionel Friend held the position of Staff Conductor to English National Opera, conducting more than thirty different productions, including the world premičre of David Blake's The Plumber’s Gift and working with such directors as Jonathan Miller, Joachim Herz, Götz Friedrich, Harry Kupfer, Richard Jones, Keith Warner and Graham Vick. At ENO he also assisted conductors such as Charles Mackerras, Mark Elder and Reginald Goodall, a highly influential musician with whom Friend collaborated on all his Wagner productions in London.

For two years Lionel Friend was part of Daniel Barenboim's team for The Ring at the Bayreuth Festival and in 1992 also acted as his assistant with the Chicago Symphony in a major Mozart project. Until 1996, he was Music Director of New Sussex Opera, whose productions of Der fliegende Holländer in 1988 and Tannhäuser in 1990 both won substantial critical acclaim.

Lionel Friend conducts - close-up, photo by Christian Payne
Photo © Christian Payne

As Music Director of Nexus Opera, he prepared a highly praised Curlew River (Britten) for the Bath Festival and subsequent BBC Television broadcasts and a Prom in the Royal Albert Hall. He has conducted opera for BBC Radio (including three further world premičres), the Aldeburgh Festival, Radio France, Queen's Festival (Belfast), Netherlands Opera, Oper Köln, Oper Frankfurt and Opera Northern Ireland. After making his début at La Monnaie in Brussels, when he was in charge of the European premičre of Jonathan Harvey's Inquest of Love, he returned there in subsequent seasons for Un ballo in maschera and Peter Grimes. After a notably successful first appearance with The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1991, he joined them on their 1993 European Tour and for performances at the Met in New York the following year. 

In addition to opera and ballet, Lionel Friend has also given concerts and recorded with many of Europe's principal symphony orchestras and choruses, as well as all the BBC orchestras and many others in the UK. He first appeared with the BBC Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall in 1984. Following his début with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1994 he was immediately re-invited for further concerts; and at Simon Rattle's invitation he conducted a number of programmes with the City of Birmingham Symphony. He has a long-term relationship with the Nash Ensemble both in concert and recordings (including works by Schoenberg, Debussy, Poulenc, Ravel and Britten), and has recorded L’histoire du soldat with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Other recordings include CDs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on the Hyperion label and the BBC Scottish Symphony on Marco Polo. In 2007 he conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in an operatic programme with the baritone Bryn Terfel.

Other engagements have included Schubert Fierrabras for Buxton Festival, Rigoletto for Teatro Municipal (Rio de Janeiro), Falstaff for Opera North (Leeds), Le nozze di Figaro in Belfast, La finta giardiniera in Holland, Madama Butterfly in Nebraska, a Ravel/Poulenc double-bill and The Turn of the Screw for Grange Park Opera, The Pearl Fishers for Portland Opera (USA) and Salome for English National Opera, London; symphony concerts in Germany, Belgium, Norway, Hungary and Australia. Major premičres have included Tavener's Let’s begin again at the Norwich Festival, Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows, The Woman and the Hare, Cantus Iambeus and Elliott Carter's Mosaic, all on London's South Bank; as well as works by David Blake, Denisov, Alexander Goehr, Colin Matthews, Nigel Osborne and Mark-Anthony Turnage

Lionel Friend has had particular successes in Australia. Having been Assistant Conductor for South Australia's Ring cycles and Parsifal, he conducted a most successful Götterdämmerung in 2003 at the Perth International Arts Festival, and in 2006 a highly acclaimed production of Tristan und Isolde with Susan Bullock for West Australian Opera. Early in 2008 his début with Opera Australia conducting Arabella led to his nomination for a prestigious Helpmann Award for musical direction. In 2010 he conducted Le nozze di Figaro in New Zealand and Hänsel und Gretel in Adelaide; and in 2011 returned to West Australian Opera for The Tales of Hoffmann.

In 2013 he made his debuts with the Royal Danish Opera and Polish National Opera conducting The Devils of Loudun by Penderecki. The following year he returned to Copenhagen for Porgy and Bess and to Warsaw for the Polish premiere of André Tchaikowsky’s 1982 opera, The Merchant of Venice, a work he also conducted for Welsh National Opera in 2017.

After his debut with British Youth Opera in 2012 he appeared with them again in September 2014 and was their Music Director from 2015 to 2020, conducting operas by Mozart, Janácek, Stravinsky, David Blake, Judith Weir and Jonathan Dove.

From 2003 to 2010 Lionel Friend was Conductor in Residence at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire where his final concert was a performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony: 

Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra gave undoubtedly its finest performance in its long and busy history, when it performed nothing less than Mahler’s mighty, probing and technically demanding Sixth Symphony under the brilliantly clear conducting of Lionel Friend. (Birmingham Post) 

Last updated: January 2023


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Conducting shots
by Christian Payne

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